Get into the Christmas spirit with a European city break this winter
Department stores jam-packed with shoppers. Tacky baubles dangling from artificial trees. Queues for the till from here to next Christmas... This is meant to be the season of goodwill! So why not give all that a miss this year and enjoy a more traditional Christmas setting?
In the weeks running up to Christmas, the cobbles of Europe’s prettiest towns and cities host festive markets, or 'Christkindlmarkts' as they're known. Full of merriment and cheer, they're the perfect antidote to the in-your-face commercialism back home. Like a scene plucked straight from a Christmas card, town squares morph into magical marketplaces. Half-timbered houses are strung with twinkling fairy lights and evergreen garlands. The smell of roasting chestnuts hangs on the crisp wintry air. And wooden stalls groan under the weight of seasonal goodies. Things like chunky-knit jumpers. One-off ornaments for the tree. And big spice-scented candles. Weave your way through the festive maze and watch awe-struck children take their pick from handmade toys and puppets.
Step outside the market and you’ll stumble upon cosy courtyards and gabled houses veiled with snow. Let the soft glow of a café lure you in for some mulled wine and cinnamon strudel. Warm your feet by the crackling fire and gaze out of a lattice window frosted with snowflakes. This is what shopping at Christmas is all about. Here’s our lowdown on where to go this Christmas…
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Take your pick of Berlin’s Christmas markets – each December more than 50 different markets turn this fascinating city into a winter wonderland. Depending on which markets you choose to visit, there’s loads of gifts to buy, entertainment to enjoy and an unbeatable Christmassy atmosphere. And when you’re ready to take a break from the Christmas shopping – Berlin has loads of fascinating historic and more modern sights to see. The Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie – the only question is, how will you fit it all in?
Bruges is great for if you’re looking for a winter city break not too far from home. Whilst it doesn’t have the biggest Christmas market in Europe, there’s still a great atmosphere and plenty of festival cheer. There are stalls selling gifts, winter clothes and foods – and an ice rink so you can practice your skating skills. Take a stroll around the medieval streets to see more of this picturesque city. And when you’re ready to escape the cold, there are plenty of cosy bars dotted around where you can enjoy a glass of Gluhwein or a Belgian beer!
Brussels comes alive each December with a fantastic Christmas market held in the streets around St Catherine’s Cathedral. There’s no better way to do the Christmas shopping than by strolling along amongst the gift-laden chalets holding a hot waffle and a glass of Gluhwein. Why not wrap up warm and try out the skating rink too? Or there’s always the big wheel for the best view of the action. There's also plenty going on in the beautiful Grand Place - the city's centrepiece - with a giant Christmas tree, nativity scene (complete with real donkeys), and an unforgettable sound and light show beamed onto the walls of the Hôtel de Ville.
Get a taste of Hungarian culture at Budapest’s popular Christmas market. It’s a great chance to try traditional foods like strudel, as well as grilled sausages and meats. And you can buy plenty of local arts and crafts as well as handmade Christmas decorations to brighten up your winter when you’re back home. The market is held in Vörösmarty Square from the end of November to the end of December each year – which plays host to the traditional wooden chalets, and also an outdoor stage.
Geneva’s Christmas market has a great international feel about it – reflecting the atmosphere of the city perfectly. The market itself is held in Place de la Fusterie with a ‘village’ of chalets selling all kinds of gifts from locally-made handicrafts to items from further afield. There’s plenty going on here – the Festival of Trees and Lights takes place from 1st Dec to 5th Jan with the trees illuminated by patterns of lights designed by different artists. Kids (and big kids) will also love the skating rink.
Krakow offers the perfect setting for a traditional Christmas Market that takes place throughout most of December. The city is packed with beautiful baroque architecture – none better than the site of the Christmas market itself in Rynek Glowny square. Here you can soak up the atmosphere under the shadow of the beautiful clock tower and St Mary’s Basilica. Krakow’s Christmas market also includes the yearly Krakow Christmas Cribs contest – which involves local people making intricate models of the city’s most famous historic sites. The winners even get to display their work in one of the city museums!
Paris is easy to get to by Eurostar or plane and you’ll find several great Christmas markets there. The classic festive combination of wooden chalets full of handmade gifts, fir trees and sparkling lights is on offer. And there’s also an ice-rink where you can skate under the shadow of the distinctive Grand Arche de la Defense. Of course, Paris is a superb shopping destination in itself. So you could easily combine your time at the Christmas markets with a trip to the famous stores the city has to offer.
‘Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen’ – it won’t be long before you’ll be humming the tune to this famous Christmas carol. This is, after all, where you’ll find Wenceslas Square. What’s more, the square just happens to be the setting of Prague’s most talked about festive market. Picture the scene. Cobblestone streets. Soaring spires. Fairytale turrets. And everywhere you look, row upon row of brightly coloured wooden huts filled with Christmas delights. Czech glasswork, wooden toys and some of the most amazing puppets you’ve ever clapped eyes on are among the goodies in store.
When it comes to Christmassy settings, Salzburg wins hands down. Alpine peaks and pine forests cocoon the city. Steeples peep up above the snow-dusted rooftops. And church bells ring out to remind everyone that Christmas is just around the corner. The main Christmas fair takes place between Salzburg’s Baroque cathedral and the Residenzplatz.
And as if that wasn't enough, the enchanting Getriedegasse shopping street is a great place to hunt out traditional gifts, too. Stocking filler-wise, look out for gingerbread love hearts, little nativity figures and striped candy canes. Once you've done your shopping, bite into a baked apple or nibble on some toasted almonds as the sound of carol singers fills the air.